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Two Summer Triangles

Topic: Planets and Stars
Article Published - June 15, 2014
by Dr. Jim Lattis, Director, UW Space Place
Summer triangles of stars and planets

Two bright planets and four bright stars make for two prominent summer triangles in 2014. This time of year star gazers begin looking for the familiar “summer triangle” made by the three bright stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. Looking east on early summer evenings about 10 p.m., that Summer Triangle of stars stands prominently above the horizon and crosses high overhead during the course of the night, as in the diagram above. Looking toward the south (or southwest later in the evening), we find the second brightest star in the sky, Arcturus, high and nearly overhead. Arcturus forms the apex of a triangle with Saturn and Mars at the base.

In the official Summer Triangle, each of the bright stars forms part of a different constellation, and each is the brightest of its constellation: Vega is the brightest star of Lyra, Altair is the brightest star of Aquila, and Deneb is the brightest star of Cygnus. Each of these constellations holds interesting sights for viewing with small telescopes. But even a simple pair of binoculars on a clear, moonless night will reveal rich star fields in the Triangle, because the summer Milky Way passes right through the Triangle, very roughly south to north. It's well worth a little time spent reclining in a lawn chair to explore the summer Milky Way with binoculars. Once you find it, follow it southward to the even richer star fields in Scorpius and Sagittarius, which lie in the direction of the center of the Milky Way as seen from our galactic suburb.

In this summer's other triangle, Mars and especially Saturn are worth a look with your small telescope. Mars still shines relatively bright, compared to its usual mediocrity, but it is dimming and becoming apparently smaller in size as we get farther from its recent maximum brightness back in early April. Saturn reached maximum brightness and apparent size only recently, in early May, so it continues to be fine for viewing. The famous rings are nicely open (i.e. tipped at a good angle as seen from Earth) and prominent for viewing with a small telescope.

From the University of Wisconsin's "Space Place"
Villager Mall, 2300 S Park Street, Madison

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